WILTON, Iowa — Iowa's presidential caucuses are any Republican candidate's to win.
Just two months before the GOP nomination voting begins, Iowa Republicans aren't surging toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even though he's essentially been running for president since losing in the state in 2008.
This time, none of his opponents has emerged as the consensus candidate of conservatives to become his main rival, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did four years ago.
As Tamara Scott, an undecided social conservative leader who backed Huckabee in that race, says: "It's anybody's game right now."
That could change soon.
Sensing an opening, Romney is stepping up his Iowa campaign and talking about winning the state after months of taking a more low-key approach. He probably will return to Iowa in November and hold a conference call with thousands of Iowa GOP caucus-goers.
"I'd love to win Iowa, any of us would. I will be here again and again, campaigning here," Romney said recently in Sioux City.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is casting himself as the more conservative option, is starting to confront Romney. With $15 million in the bank, Perry started running a TV ad last week that, without mentioning Romney challenges Romney's efforts to portray himself as the strongest candidate on the economy.
"I'll create at least 2 1/2 million new jobs, and I know something about that," Perry says in the ad that highlights Texas job creation.
Businessman Herman Cain, a political outsider enjoying a burst of momentum, is starting to focus more on Iowa, adding campaign staff and visiting the state recently for the first time in 10 weeks. But he trails both Romney and Perry in fundraising by the millions.
For now at least, the race in Iowa is wide open.
Polls show Romney and Cain at the head of the pack, trailed by about a half dozen others, including Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican, also is a factor. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a moderate on some issues that Iowa Republicans hold dear, is not.
The up-for-grabs nature of the Iowa race matters nationally because the outcome on Jan. 3 will shape what happens in the states that vote next — New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — and beyond.
As it stands now, Iowa reflects the Republican Party's lack of clarity when it comes to the crowded GOP field and its increasingly urgent search for a candidate who can defeat Democratic President Barack Obama next fall.
"This is the first time I've waited this long to decide," said Linda Allison, an Iowan who recently attended a Perry event. "I am still waiting to be convinced."
Many factors are adding to the volatility.
Large numbers of Iowa Republicans are undecided and just starting to tune into the race in earnest. Fewer than 20 of Iowa's 76 Republican legislators have publicly declared their support for a candidate, and no single candidate has a clear edge among those who have picked sides. At this point four years ago, nearly all lawmakers had endorsed someone.
Consider state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, for whom Perry raised money at a recent event in eastern Iowa.
"Perry may not be the best debater, but he can really work an audience like this," said Kaufmann, who endorsed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson four months before the 2008 GOP caucuses. "And while Romney is well prepared, and campaigns well, I'd like to see him out in this area more."
Critical groups of activists also are waiting to rally behind a candidate, too.
Iowa's evangelical pastors, influential among a part of the GOP base, are divided. So are home-school advocates. Both groups pushed Huckabee to victory four years ago.
"None of these home-school families are calling me and asking me about the candidates," said Susan Geddes, a Des Moines-area Republican and top organizer for Huckabee in 2008. "Nobody's excited about them."
All this explains why many candidates are returning to Iowa in the week ahead for a series of events. Most of the 2012 candidate, but not Romney, courted Christian conservatives at a forum on values last weekend.
The all-out effort to court social conservative is partly why Romney is recalibrating his approach toward Iowa, where he's only made three visits this year.
He has been reached out quietly to past supporters and working to cast himself as the candidate with the strongest economic credentials. Unlike in 2008, he's not overtly competing for the love of social conservatives. These voters, a potent bloc in the caucuses, have had doubts about his Mormon faith and his reversals on several social issues.
So while he's stepping up his Iowa activity, he's also picking his spots.
He's the only major candidate who hasn't committed to appearing in Iowa at Tuesday's forum on manufacturing hosted by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in Pella or the state GOP dinner Friday in Des Moines.
Perry plans to attend both.
He has little choice given that he's lagging in state polls, facing challenges from the right and fighting with rivals for the backing of social conservatives. The former Texas agriculture commissioner and Air Force officer is trying to broad his appeal, reaching out to veterans and farmers as he looks to cobble together a winning coalition and stop Romney.
Bachmann, whose support has cooled since her victory in the state GOP's August test vote, is popular with Christian conservatives and tea party activists. She has heavily sought the support of evangelical pastors and recently named a veteran GOP campaign operative to stabilize the campaign for the stretch run.Comment on this story
Santorum is working hard in Iowa and was expected to have stopped in all 99 counties by week's end, even though he has little money and manpower. He shows no sign of going away and recently began airing his first radio ads in Iowa.
Cain is a bit of a wild card.
He's popular for his business background and plain-spoken speaking style. But he's far behind in building an Iowa campaign and he's under attack by conservatives for referring recently to abortion as a choice. Still, tea party activists adore him and his campaign has recently begun conducting automated phone calls.